Women Becoming a Powerful Voice

March 15, 2004By Elaine Chao

Sometimes hope can be found in small gestures – particularly ideas or symbols that inspire others to believe that their dreams can become reality. That is what I saw earlier this year when I presented the Fatima Al-Zahra Center for Women’s Rights and Democracy in Hilla, Iraq, with a photographic gallery of the eight women whom President Bush appointed to the U.S. Department of Labor, a first in America’s history. The Iraqi women were astonished to learn that women composed half the top officials of a U.S. government agency.

Perhaps it could happen in Iraq, they wondered out loud.

Tremendous progress

That such a meeting could take place is a testament to the tremendous progress that has been made in Iraq. Hilla, 90 miles south of Baghdad, near the legendary biblical city of Babil, had seen much horror during the days of Saddam Hussein. About 60 percent of the population of this Shiite region are women because Hussein killed so many of the men. A mass grave outside of town with the remains of 30,000 people testified to what they had been through.

Yet the women I met at the center were anything but depressed, cowed or shy. The center’s Internet cafe was crowded with spirited women, most veiled and one even wearing black gloves, who gingerly showed off their ability to surf the Web. When I announced the U.S. Labor Department’s website address, I was asked to speak slowly so they could transcribe it correctly. The voracious appetite for contact with the outside world can be seen in another ubiquitous piece of technology on display everywhere in Hilla: television satellite dishes.

The Women’s Center also houses a kitchen that supports a catering business, a sewing room where women make garments to sell, and an auditorium where classes are held and that is rented out. The building that was once a Ba’athist Party hangout is now a bustling, thriving women’s center that not only supports itself but also teaches valuable skills. It is one of 18 centers that the U.S. government is opening in Iraq to support women’s political rights and provide educational and income-generating opportunities for women.

Take their message everywhere

After brief remarks to the women, I opened up the floor for questions. It quickly became apparent that the pictures adorning the walls and hallways of Islamic women casting ballots were much more than window dressing. Their principal concern was how women would be treated under a new Iraqi government. They want the right to vote, to run for office and to work in government ministries. Would I take this message to Baghdad and Washington? I assured them that I would, including to everyone else who would listen.

The women at the Hilla Center made it clear that their faith was no barrier to exercising their political rights. And I understood why the young American women working at the center were so optimistic about this project and had extended their tours of duty.

At the Department of Labor, we have given $5 million to help rebuild the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Some of the first Iraqis to volunteer to work with us – at great risk to themselves – were three courageous women. We brought them to Washington to show them how the Department of Labor is organized and saw them again during the recent trip to Iraq.

Seats in the parliament

These brave women and others whom I met in Hilla are the face of the new Iraq. They are a powerful voice for democracy and role models for other women in the region.

I am gratified that when the interim Iraqi constitution was approved recently, it included guarantees that Iraqi women would have seats in the parliament. This is a step in the right direction and, although much remains to be done, it is a sign of hope for those whose voices have been silenced for much too long.

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